PLAYING WITH FIRE: CHAPTERS 1-3

 

CHAPTER ONE

It’s a strange sensation when the dead occupy a space. The utter stillness and unnatural cold can play tricks on aperson’s mind, bringing out a primitive side that most of us try to hide.

Naïve people believe that ghosts are harmless entities who’ve gotten lost on their way to the light.

Not me.

I know the truth. I know what they really are—parasites. They live off memories and fear until their hosts are sucked dry of their will to live.

That’s why I don’t try to coax, whisper, or talk to the dearly departed. I’m not there to help them cross over. At least not in the way most people think. I leave that crap to the others.

I’m there for one reason, and one reason only, to make sure the dead—stay dead.

My name is Alexa Dawn and I am a ghost hunter. 

Should’ve known the day was going to be bad, since it started with a damp chew toy stuck between my toes. I’d received a call from a frantic couple claiming to have an ectoplasmic freak-out happening in their home. Normally, I take the time to validate a haunt before I jump into a job, but my rent was due and my dog needed kibble so I made an exception.

Unlike some of the places I’m called to in Los Angeles, the Frank Lloyd Wright rip-off wasn’t dilapidated or historic. In fact, the McMansion looked new.

That told me two things. The first was that the haunt wasn’t structure-based. It was somehow associated with the land or an object. The second was that this job was going to be a real bitch.

Land based ghosts do not like to leave peacefully. They throw tantrums that would shame any two-year-old on a sugar binge. The thought of being able to kick some ill-tempered specter butt brought a smile to my face. I could almost feel the buzz and I hadn’t even dispatched it yet.

Some people take drugs to get high, I kill Shades.

Parking my truck in my new clients’ driveway, I climbed out and glanced at the couple huddling in the center of the lawn. They were parked under a red umbrella and had on winter parkas. Since this was Southern California, I wondered how cold it was in their house.

I ambled across the lawn and stopped short of the umbrella. “I’m Alexa Dawn. You called earlier.”

They looked at me and frowned.
“You’re just a kid,” Mr. Chang said.
I’m twenty, but I know I look a lot younger. There wasn’t 
anything I could do about it.
They stared at my pierced eyebrow, then their gazes 
dropped to my ripped jeans and biker boots. The longer they stared, the higher their eyebrows went.

“I’m going to grab my equipment, then go inside and take a quick look around. Be back in a few,” I said.

“It’s not safe,” Mr. Chang said.

“It rarely ever is,” I said, trying to shake off the unease their warning had instilled in me...

As I walked to my truck, Mrs. Chang muttered something that sounded like Fei Yen to Mr. Chang. He pulled her closer and told her everything would be okay. Since they weren’t talking to me, I decided to get on with the job.

There are reasons why I don’t normally accept work without researching the site. The very first job I was called out on involved an angry poltergeist. It was in Orange County, California, not far from where I grew up.

The two-story house was in an affluent neighborhood that barely managed to escape being devoured by the urban sprawl surrounding it. A tiny island of originality in a sea of sameness.

At the time, I had no idea what I was doing. The Shade sent me headfirst out a second-story window onto the front porch roof. I missed overshooting it by inches and broke my right arm in three places. I was lucky that was all I broke. And even luckier that the house had a front porch. Not many did in Orange County.

This was before I’d found the Paranormal Friends Societyand learned a few advanced ghost-hunting techniques. Idon’t claim to be an expert, but despite my age, I am good atmy job.

I gave Mr. and Mrs. Chang a reassuring nod, then stepped over the threshold into their home.

Priceless paintings hung in gilded frames above tables adorned with Asian antiquities. All the pieces looked well- chosen. The cultures and time periods blended seamlessly.That didn’t mean that something nasty hadn’t attached itself to one of the items, but it did make it less likely. It’s a known fact in ghost-hunting circles that some antiquities don’t play well with others. Think of it as a personality conflict.

My eyes told me that I was alone, standing in an opulent foyer straight out of Architectural Digest. But my senses...my senses knew better. Alive with anticipation, they waited patiently for that one proverbial twig to snap, the breeze to shift, the telling sign that would indicate the direction of the oncoming attack.

Make no mistake, it was coming. Death circled above me on invisible wings. Each flap bringing me closer to the inevitable. Except I planned to get out of this encounter alive.

I set my steel-encased boom box down on the marble checkerboard floor and ran my hands over my arms to dispel the gooseflesh, then yanked the ends of my leather jacket together. I zipped it as a shiver rattled my teeth.

One thing about cold spots: Once experienced, they were never forgotten. Much like smelling your first dead body or losing your virginity.

Yeah, it’s that pleasant.

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, attempting to get a sense of the house. I’m not psychic, but it was amazing what you could pick up if you just paid attention. Energy had a pulse. Slower than a heartbeat, but just as steady.

It throbbed through my body, giving me insight into the environment. It let me know when it was safe and warnedme when it wasn’t. Energy was always there, floating beneath the surface. Most people just didn’t pay attention until it was too late.

This home’s beat was thready and uneven as if the life was being slowly drained from its cream-colored walls.

I sniffed, inhaling the sickly sweet odor wafting in the air. Ginseng? Burnt sugar? Sandalwood maybe? Bloodhound, I’m not.

Over the years I have learned to identify quite a few fragrances in an instant. Flicker ghosts, the kind you catch out of the corner of your eye, smell like raisins, while poltergeists are sour like sunbaked milk.

Each odor had a story to tell. Sometimes the smell was the only way to determine what kind of spirit you were dealing with. You didn’t want to think that you were banishing the spirit of gentle Aunt Tess and end up with Jack the Ripper. The former would leave in a whisper, while the latter would try to live up to its namesake. I preferred to deal with the Jacks of the world. They were loaded with siphoned energy.

I inhaled deeply again and exhaled slowly. It was important to determine the scent. Every time I thought I had it, the odor changed, becoming elusive. Strange. Shades didn’t do that—couldn’t do that to my knowledge. I didn’t like that I couldn’t pin down the scent. I should’ve been able to identify it, at least on the second try. Unease settled on my shoulders, knotting the muscles.

Relax. You’re just tense because it’s been awhile.

Everything in the environment holds some clue as towhat’s happening in a home. This house was no exception. Eventually, it would reveal its secrets. I just had to be patient.

Three red doors spaced ten feet apart lined the left wall like Canadian Mounties at attention. Three more lay directly across the room, mirroring their placement. Why red doors? Why not blue or white?

I knew in some Asian cultures red was considered a lucky color, while white was funerary. Why hadn’t the good fortune worked for my new clients, the Changs? Had they decorated based on personal taste or beliefs? I should’ve asked. It makes a difference.

Taste was weak—but belief, belief held power.

I pulled two incense sticks, frankincense and myrrh, out of my tackle box and lit them, waving the sticks in the air to distribute the smoke. The combo might not be able to banish spirits completely, but the spicy fragrances had been known to calm Shades long enough for me to evict them.

When enough incense filled the air, I reached into my pocket for the herbs I carried to every job. I scattered dill, fennel, mullein, and salt like birdseed across the floor. The mixture would prevent the Shade from moving from room toroom. I was in no mood to play “chase the ghost.”

Something about the home design made me uneasy. My brow furrowed as I studied the lines, color, and layout somemore. The pattern reminded me of something I’d seen before. I mentally marked out the distance between the doors. It was perfect. Too perfect. An alignment like this could create a grid.

I’d read about grids in the Paranormal Friends Society newsletter, but I had never experienced one firsthand. Grids were more likely to be found on the east coast, where the ground doesn’t move as much. Hard to keep things aligned in an earthquake zone.

To get a better look at the space, I took a step back. My steel-toed boots tapped the tiles, echoing in the silence. I clapped, listening to the sound reverberate between the walls. For a second, I had the overwhelming urge to yodel, but I wasn’t getting paid to play.

My trusty tackle box held a laser aligner. I retrieved it and pointed the red beam toward the far wall. It was straight. I walked to the first set of doors and pressed the aligner again. Another straight line formed. I put the aligner on the floor and checked again. Three for three. Not good.

Between the doors and the checkered floor, the Changs had accidentally created a grid. Shades loved grids. It was the equivalent of catnip to a cat or counting to an OCD vampire. The invisible lines gave Shades the power to partially manifest. This matched what the Changs had told me on the phone about the shadow men and levitating furniture.

Grids also created supernatural portals, which increased a Shade’s strength and made them deadly—especially if the grid matched an electromagnetic field emanating from the ground.

My gut was telling me this one did. And my gut never lied.

No wonder this thing could rearrange the furniture. It was tapped into the ghostly equivalent of a power station. The Changs were lucky that it hadn’t decided to move the house off its foundation. It probably would, given more time.

I whipped out my TriField EM meter and started a slow sweep of the room. The electromagnetic readings were normal at first, bouncing between low to moderate. When I reached the center of the foyer, the gauge hiccupped. By the time I’d made a full circle, the needle was buried in the red zone and the readings were off the chart.

The Changs had designed their home to be esthetically pleasing. And it was, if pleasing was defined as a giant revolving door for the dead.

There was no telling what had found its way to the portal and come through. This place could be a giant Shade hotel by now. I didn’t like the idea that I could be dealing with multiple entities. It was hard enough to rid a property of one by driving them out of the house before they had a chance to leave on their own. I wasn’t sure I could dispatch several.

What would that power feel like? How long would therush last? I knew I was getting ahead of myself. I’d have to live through the eviction first.

Without thought, I stepped back until my shoulders hit the front door. My present position wouldn’t help me if something nasty wanted to take a pound of my flesh, but like a child’s security blanket, it made me feel better.

If I hadn’t made it a policy to work alone, I’d be tempted to pull out my cell-phone and call in reinforcements from the local ghost hunter group. On second thought, the Paranormal Friends Society would be more of a hindrance than help.

They were Shade lovers, every last one of them, with mottos like “Free the ghosts, they were once people too,” and my personal favorite, “Have you hugged your ghost today.” I tried to tell them they weren’t dealing with fucking Casper, but they didn’t want to hear it.

The level of stupidity never ceased to amaze me. How could you hug something that wouldn’t think twice about snapping your loved one’s neck?

My parent’s horror-struck faces flashed in my mind. I closed my eyes as a wave of nausea hit and willed the image away. I couldn’t think about them now. It was a distraction that would only piss me off. Or worse yet—get me killed.

The scented air changed, crackling as the energy began to build. Whatever was trying to come through was big. Real big. And powerful. With my luck, it would be nasty as all hell. Thank goodness Shades can’t fully solidify. Catching a shadowy half-formed version would be bad enough.

The thought had barely left my mind, when the hair on my nape stood on end.

The lights on my EM meter lit up like a Christmas tree during a power surge. I shoved it in my pocket and reached into my tackle box for the electronic scrambler, or ES forshort. It was created to disrupt a Shade’s molecular structure. Like the electromagnetic pulse device that I designed myself—thanks to an online electronics course. The ESwasn’t exactly street legal, but it was the best weapon to useuntil I found the source of the haunt. After that, it would be up to the pop divas to dispatch the entity.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with pop music, butfor some reason it annoys the hell out of Shades.

I turned the scrambler on. The aim of the ES was to getthe Shade’s attention. Much like a poke in the shoulder or a punch in the face. It wasn’t as effective as the EMP, but I didn’t want to short out the Changs’ televisions, computers, and stereos, if I could avoid it. I wouldn’t have to worry about damage to my equipment, since it had been covered with sheet steel in order to protect the circuits.

I pressed the button on the ES device, sending out a signal. It rolled through the home unhindered by walls and floors. It was too weak to travel far. If the Shade was still just gathering power, that little scrambler wave of energy would hurt like a real mother.

The response was immediate. The walls began to shake, sending pictures and paintings crashing to the floor. I winced when a thick frame cracked as it hit the tile. Hope that wasn’t a real Monet.

A loud screech scored the air. I recoiled, which was hard to do when your back was already against a door. The sound grew in volume before morphing into a howl of anger. The air reeked of sour milk, gagging me.

Bangs and flopping noises came from door number one on the left. Cocking my head, I listened as something writhed in agony.

Looked like I had a winner.

 

CHAPTER TWO

I gathered my equipment and made my way to what I hoped was the source of the Changs’ misery. The eight-foot- tall door concealed an expansive bedroom that was large enough to house my entire bungalow.

Deep tans and light browns covered the massive mahogany sleigh bed that was as elegant as its Asian owners. There were two bedside tables that held thick books andwhat looked to be antique Tiffany lamps. No, I don’t have aneye for design, but I do recognize a weapon when I see one. Those lamps...

Perfect projectiles.

The room was lavished with more art. I scanned the furniture once more. All wood. Heavy. Kindling in the making.

Great, not only did I have a land-based haunt, but the Shade was a bedroom perv to boot. Some Shades have a bit of a voyeuristic streak. I suppose if you couldn’t participate,the next best thing to do was watch.

I exhaled. White clouds formed in the air in front of my face. The cold was strange given the swath of warm colors running throughout the room. It was colder in here than it had been in the grand foyer, which meant the Shade was close and drawing energy from its surroundings.

My gaze landed on the smoked glass door to the right, which I assumed led to the master bath and closet area. TheChangs hadn’t mentioned activity in their bathroom, so Idecided to unleash the pop divas first. If that didn’t work, theladies and I would switch locations.

I rolled my neck and exhaled, listening to the xylophonic crack of bone. The warm air from my breath curled into white wisps. Within seconds, the small cloud morphed, ever increasing in size until it threatened to take human shape.

“Oh no you don’t.” I waved my hand back and forth to disperse it. Sometimes the old-fashioned method worked best.

Setting my boom box down, I flipped open the CD player. I’d tried going digital, but it was too easy for Shades to suck the batteries dry. I’d lost two phones before I gave up and went back to using boom boxes. I popped in Celine’sGreatest Hits. If that didn’t work, I’d move onto Katy or Taylor.

The pressure in the room began to intensify, with a sensation much like diving to the bottom of a six-foot-deep pool without clearing your ears. My scalp tightened and prickled as something furry and invisible brushed the outside of my leather jacket with a quiet shoosh.

So far this was nothing new, typical Shade scare tactic behavior. I would’ve expected more from one feeding ongrid gravy. Shades thrive on human fear. It nourishes them, increasing their energy until they can inflict physical harm.

Me, I get off on starving them to death.

But there was little chance of that happening today. It had fed, and fed well. Time to fall back on the old standby—brute force.

Playing bored was a ploy I used often. I didn’t want togive the entity the satisfaction of knowing that I was about to kick some serious Shade ass. Never underestimate the element of surprise. Lucky for me, Shades couldn’t readminds.

Grinning, I pressed the play button on the boom box. Silence. I tried again. Nothing happened. My smile dropped as I pounded the button repeatedly. The damn thing had drained my batteries. Must have happened during its furry flyby. Shades suck battery juice like celebs down Red Bull and Vitamin water.

I jerked the boom box up and replaced the dead cells with new ones. It only took seconds. I have gotten fast over theyears. I’ve had to.

This time when I hit play Celine’s vibrato poured out ofthe speakers, hitting high note after high note. I heardshattering in the bathroom and knew it wasn’t from Celine.She was good, but she wasn’t that good. The glass on thebathroom door cracked, sending shards onto the carpet. This Shade was pissed and getting more so by the minute.

I pulled out my ES device and readjusted the level. Itwouldn’t destroy a typical Shade, but it would disrupt its ability to draw more energy.

Cranking the volume on the boom box until the music distorted, I hit the ES button. Angry shrieks scalded the air. Icovered my ears, but it didn’t help. Catching movement outof the corner of my eye, I turned in time to see invisible fingers lift the covers five feet off the bed, before slashing and stripping them away.

The matching collectable lamps on their bedside tables took flight. I ducked, a second before they smashed against the door, grateful that I’d been adept at dodgeball as a kid.

“Sing, baby, sing.” I hummed along to the all-too- familiar tunes as the Shade continued to suffer and throw a temper tantrum.

I was so caught up in the chaos that I almost missed the dark little head poking out from behind the bathroom door. It took my brain a moment to register what I was seeing. A child. What was a child doing in here? The kid looked to be maybe five or six.
She whimpered. “I want my mommy.”
Fear punched me in the gut, nearly driving me back. I

couldn’t seem to stop trembling.
My clients had said the words Fei Yen before I’d stepped

into the house. I’d assumed the words meant “help us” inChinese. Under duress, people tend to revert to their nativelanguage. Should’ve asked. This was one mistake I couldn’tafford. Not when it involved a child.

Fei Yen must have snuck back in the house when herparents weren’t looking. She’d been hiding ever since. Ithought about how easy it had been to ditch my parents whenI was her age and they hadn’t been scared out of their minds. It must have been a piece of cake for this kid.

No wonder Mrs. Chang had sounded frantic. What Ididn’t get was why she hadn’t said anything to me or tried toget into the house. She must have suspected. Or maybe shedidn’t. Maybe she was just embarrassed that she’d lost track of her daughter. Hell, they could’ve been so freaked out thatthey forgot they even had a kid. Who knows? The little girl was here now and that was all that mattered.

Fresh scratches covered her arms and face. Self-inflicted? Or had the Shade helped?

The fury in the room continued to grow. Furniture shifted, while everything loose was swept into an invisible tornado of energy. The air spun and rotated, threatening to suck up anything not nailed down. I eased my way toward the bathroom door, keeping my eyes trained on potentialprojectiles. I couldn’t afford to make any sudden moves. The Shade’s attention was on me and that was where it needed tostay.

“Make it stop,” she cried. Her small body shook withfear.

I didn’t dare do as she asked. The Shade was too strong already and I couldn’t take the chance that it would getaway. I needed this evict. “It’s okay, sweetie. I’m coming.”

My voice was swallowed by Celine and objects hitting thewalls. “You can come out. Everything will be all right,” Ilied.

Kids were extremely vulnerable to the supernatural because they were mentally open and willing to believe. That was why their rooms tended to be the most haunted. They also trusted without inhibition, which made them an easy mark for a deviant Shade. I know firsthand. One childish mistake with a Talking board had cost me my family.

I had to get the Changs’ child out of here, before theShade got tired of spinning home accessories and decided to try for something small, black-haired, and squishy. I chanced a glance toward the bathroom door. The child continued tostare at the show around us, but hadn’t budged. I needed herto meet me halfway.

“Can you reach my hand?” I shouted over the racket.

The little head jerked side to side and tears streameddown her cheeks. “Hurry, it’s coming.”

My heart pounded. What was coming? I gave a quick glance around the room. Had I been in such a hurry to finishthis job that I’d missed something? I half expected to see ashadow man lurking in the corner, but everything still looked like a swirling mess.

“Just a little farther. You can do it,” I encouraged,reaching out as far as I could. I took another step and a volume of War and Peace whizzed past my head, brushing my hair in the process. One inch lower and I would’ve beendrooling down the front of my shirt for the foreseeable future.

The book hit the wall like a meteorite. Plaster exploded from the crater, showering debris onto the beige carpet.

“Son of a bitch!” I shouted a second before mentally kicking myself. I try not to swear in front of kids, but thiswasn’t exactly a typical situation.

The child sniffled and gave me a half smile.

“Did you think that was funny?” I asked, returning hergrin.

The kid nodded and inched out of the bathroom, wearing a hot pink pair of pants and a white shirt with matchingshoes. So it was a little girl like I’d thought. At that age,when their hair was short, you could never really tell until you saw the clothes. And even then, it was iffy.

“I bet you’d like to see Mommy and Daddy. They’ve been looking for you.”

I needed to get my hands on her. If she’d only move a little closer, then I’d be able to grab her. She kept her head down and her eyes averted as she crept forward. I couldn’t really blame her. If I were her, I’d be terrified.

Hell, I was terrified. Not enough to leave, but scared was scared. I wasn’t used to risking anyone’s life but my own.The thought of a child taking a hit meant for me left a strange void inside that was slowly but steadily filling with black, seething rage. I couldn’t let that happen.

I tumbled the ES device in my pocket and pulled out the EMP. I knew I was about to blow out all the electrical equipment the Changs owned and possibly take out several of the neighbors’ homes too, but I didn’t have much of achoice. The grid made this Shade more powerful thananything I’d ever encountered. I needed the boost to guarantee its removal—or at the very least drive it away longenough for me to get the Changs’ kid outside.

I pressed the button and cries poured out of the walls. I ignored them and focused on the child. The pixie cut obscured her face as she neared, but I could see the wet trail the tears had blazed down her cheeks and the angry red scratch underlining her left eye.

She sniffled, then reached out, her tiny hand searching for help in the maelstrom. I lunged for Fei Yen, grasping hercool fingers a little harder than I’d intended, and began to pull. “You’re okay now. I’ve got you.”

I was so relieved to have my hands on her that it took me a minute to notice the cold seeping into my arm, slithering its way like a python over a branch until its icy fangs had curled around my throat. My immediate thought was that it was fear-born adrenaline, but if so, where was the buzz that normally followed?

Suddenly, everything stopped swirling and Celine’s voice died. The calm swallowed the chaos in one bite, leaving us floating in the eye of a storm. The silence deafened in its deadly stillness. I had a bad feeling that we needed to get out of the house—fast. I’d never had a Shade behave this way.

We moved at a sluggish pace as Fei Yen dug in her little heels. “Honey, you have to hurry or I’m going to pick you up and carry you.”

For some reason, I couldn’t feel my fingers. I glanced down at the hand wrapped around the child’s. It was blue. Vein-popping, iceberg-forming, cobalt blue.

I struggled to let go of Fei Yen, but my numb fingers refused to cooperate. Whatever had me would take us both out, if I didn’t break our hold. I pulled and twisted, grunting under the strain, but we were welded together in a frozen embrace.

“Fei Yen, try to get your hand out.”
“I can’t,” she cried. “So cold.” Her teeth began to chatter. “No!” I bellowed, yanking hard. There was no way I’d let 
this thing hurt a kid. Ice staked at my chest, leaving slivers of pain behind. What was happening? Whatever it was, it was bad. The only warmth left in my body resided in the anger bubbling beneath the surface of my rapidly diminishing calm.

I threw my weight back and my grasp slipped. The momentum propelled me into the five-drawer dresser, nearly toppling it. Family photos of the Changs with a cream- colored dog clattered to the floor. I slowly straightened and looked around the once pristine bedroom, which now resembled a hotel room after a night with a rock band on PCP. There was no way to determine where the next attack might come from.
The cold had eased a bit, but hadn’t dissipated. My gaze

slid to Fei Yen. “Are you all right?”
She nodded, strangely serene under the circumstances.

No doubt in shock.
I needed to keep her talking until I could get her safely

outside and call an ambulance. “Fei Yen is a pretty name. What does it mean?” I asked.

She shrugged her tiny shoulders as a shiver rattled her fragile frame. “I don’t know. My name is Huli Jing.” The words came out hushed and small like the child.

“Excuse me?” I blinked. “What did you say your name was?”

“Huli Jing,” she repeated, as if that was patently obvious. Had I been mistaken about the name?
“Why are you frowning?” she asked.
I was sure that Mrs. Chang had said Fei Yen. I shook my

head. “It’s nothing.” I’d worry about the discrepancy after I got her out and finished the job. The trembling in my hands was getting worse and it didn’t have anything to do with the cold. I stepped forward to retrieve Huli.

A maniacal giggle sounded next to my left ear and my heart slammed against my frozen ribs. I spun around, frantically, searching for the source, but saw nothing.

The Shade obviously wasn’t done playing with us. Like atwisted game of Marco Polo, the sound continued to bounce around the room. Crawling under my skin, burrowing into my psyche, feeding my fear until it was ripe for harvest. Soon the Shade would pull enough energy from the grid to go for round two.

“Run!” I yelled.

I’m really not sure what happened next. I heard a noise kind of like a cap gun pop, then I was flying through the air.I should probably mention that I don’t like to fly, even when it’s only three feet off the ground.

The closed wooden door barely slowed my progress as my body torpedoed through it, slashing my forehead and sending stake-sized splinters in all directions. Blood dripped into my eyes, partially blinding me. My surroundings blurred. I became acquainted with the cold marble tiles in the foyer a half second later.

My head and back smacked the ground at the same time, rattling my teeth. Stars burst from behind my eyelids. I gasped, unable to catch my breath as it whooshed out of my lungs. I needed to warn...to warn...little girl—Huli. Tell herto run. To hide. She’d managed to avoid the Shade thus far. She could do it again.

I tried to raise my head and look around, but it hurt too much to move. A wave of unnatural cold swept over me. My stomach pitched and I shuddered. The spit in my mouth pooled. I swallowed rapidly, refusing to be sick.

The frigid air bathed my skin, pulling at the fine hairs. The icy touch let me know exactly how vulnerable I was, lying out in the open. I hated it. Hated what it represented. Hated how it made me feel. Hated what that cold had done to my family.

I didn’t see or hear Huli Jing’s approach. She slowed asshe came into view. I watched the cuts on her arms and faceseal like they’d been zipped up from the inside. I told mylimbs to move, but they refused to cooperate as I stared in fascinated horror.

Maybe the Shade had possessed her. Could they do that? I’d heard theories that shadow men could—except I hadn’tseen any shadow men. I shuddered at the thought ofsomething unnatural possessing the Changs’ child.

I didn’t know the first thing about exorcisms outside of the movies. And heaven help me if the experience was anything like that. If her head spun around and I heard bone crack, I’d be the one spewing pea soup.

Huli Jing halted next to my shoulder. The silver bells onher pink and white shoes never made a sound. Maybe I’d jarred my hearing when I hit the floor. She stood over me for a second, tilting her head from side to side as if listening to something no one else could hear.

Out of habit or some primitive instinct long forgotten, I listened, too.

The oddly rhythmic movement of her head stoppedabruptly. She leaned over me. That’s when I saw it—twoblack holes where her eyes should be. All this time I’d assumed her irises were so brown that they’d looked black just like her parents. It was only up close and personal that I realized my mistake.

Now I don’t lose it in most situations, but this encounter pushed the limit on my freak-out-o-meter.

Huli continued to stare, trapping my gaze so I couldn’t look away. Orange flames rose behind her lids. It was like watching a charcoal-filled barbeque pit right after someone sprayed it with fuel and tossed a match.

No way.

No way was this happening. Denying what my brain was telling me, I closed my eyes, then opened them again. The flames were gone, but the black bottomless pits remained. Ifelt myself falling into them. Once inside, there’d be no escape.

Screams filled my head, yet no sound came out.
Huli smiled reassuringly.
Funny, I felt anything but. She reached down to touch my 
shoulder. I tried to move. Scoot away. Roll. Anything. But I couldn’t.

Her touch was light and cool, almost hesitant, as if she was trying to figure out if I was real. I wondered the same about her. Shades could not fully solidify, even with a grid to draw on. And there was no way to grab them. So what was I dealing with? Had my head hit so hard that I was hallucinating?

I stared at her fathomless eyes. Nope, not a hallucination. More like wishful thinking on my part.

I took a shuddering breath and screamed again. This time the sound bounced off the walls, echoing around the foyer before dying. Huli didn’t move. She didn’t even flinch.

“What in the hell are you?” I asked, even though I wasn’tsure that I wanted the answer.

She leaned closer. I tried to shrink back, but there was nowhere for me to go. Her cool little nose touched mine. It was cool like she’d been playing outside in winter. Her skin smelled faintly of smoke and snow. A strange combination that I should’ve noticed before now.

“I think the better question is, Gosling, what are you?” She smiled blithely.

What did she mean by that? My brain scrambled to understand.

Something sizzled like bacon on a griddle and smoke began to rise. It took me a second to figure out where the sound was coming from. I inhaled, choked by the odor of burning flesh. My head jerked to the right as the pain registered. I screamed in agony.

I was on fire.

 

CHAPTER THREE

I woke sprawled across the floor, limbs akimbo. Not the most dignified position, but the pain told me I was alive, so that was a bonus. Sitting up took a couple of tries. Bracing one hand on the floor, I waited for the room to stop spinning.

A grass-scented breeze ruffled my hair. Confused, I glanced over and saw that the front door was wide open. Icouldn’t remember opening it. I couldn’t remember much of anything past arriving at the Changs’ home.

The cool air brushed over my bare arm. Strips of leather hung like a cat-o-nine-tails where my sleeve used to be, leaving pale skin visible, along with an angry redness that throbbed in time with my heartbeat. What happened to my jacket? I looked around. The house was in shambles. Had I done that? I sure hoped not.

My memory slowly returned as I scanned the foyer. The thoughts carried a riptide of unwanted emotion with them. Like a recording, my mind fast-forwarded through the events of the morning. When it reached the end, my eyes widened and I whipped my head around, searching frantically for Huli Jing. The room spun. I touched my forehead and came away with bloody fingers. Where was she? Had she run outside?

Fear and anger hit me in equal measures as I thought about the Changs. They’d lied. There was nothing routine about this job. Shadow men, my ass.

I struggled to stand, then jerked my coat off. My breath hissed as the leather scraped the raw wound. Pain followed, engulfing my upper body. My knees wobbled and threatenedto buckle. I didn’t want to end up back on the floor, so Istumbled to the wall nearby for support.

A moment later, the Changs burst through the doorway. The couple still wore matching parkas, a true testament totheir fear, but Mr. Chang had ditched the red umbrella he’dbeen holding for a miniature cream-colored poodle with a purple bow perched on top of its curly head.

Mrs. Chang scanned the room, her almond-shaped eyes rounding at the damage. Considering the destruction, I was grateful I’d had the forethought to have them sign the release waiver before I started work.

Ghost hunting could get messy and I refused to be held accountable for cleaning and repairs. It wasn’t my fault that ectoplasm was like sand trapped in a bathing suit and got into even the tiniest cracks or that ghosts had nasty tempers and liked to break things.

Before the waiver, it was amazing how many people triedto sue me or back out of paying. They’d wait until after I’d dispatched the Shade, then they would suddenly cancel their check and claim ignorance.

The burden of proof falls on me, since the law doesn’t recognize ghost hunting as a profession outside of law enforcement. I got around this by having a state license for dry-walling. Most clients were more than happy to sign the release. It was a lot less embarrassing than trying to file a haunt claim with their homeowners insurance, since ghosts were definitely not covered.

If her expression was any indication, Mrs. Chang wasn’t going to be another happy, satisfied customer. She reached for her husband without looking, her hand unerringly landing on his forearm. He visibly tensed, when her knuckles whitened.

“What? What happened?” she asked, not noticing me yet.

I’m hard to spot, standing in the midst of someone’s personal devastation, so I staggered forward.

They gasped when they saw me.
Never a good sign.
Their gazes slid from my bloody face to my shoulder. Mr.

Chang paled, then went Kermit the frog on me. Green really wasn’t his color.

I couldn’t see my face, so I glanced at my shoulder and wished I hadn’t.

Over the years I’ve had a lot of injuries from nasty Shades. Everything from bites to broken bones. Never anything like this. The burn on my shoulder throbbed and ached. Blisters, like brown bubble wrap waiting to be popped, had replaced the pale smooth skin. Something wasoozing down my back. I didn’t want to see what.

“You lied to me.” I hobbled nearer, pushing the pain aside. The little dog in Mr. Chang’s hands growled and barked. I ignored it, since as far as I was concerned it was the least scary thing in the house. “You said all you saw were objects moving around and shadow men out of the corner of your eye.”

They’d seen a lot more than that. And if I hadn’t been so desperate for work, so desperate for the energy fix, I would’ve known that going into the job.

“We didn’t lie. We told you everything,” Mr. Chang insisted. “I don’t understand how this could’ve happened.” He waved a hand at the mess.

Was he serious? He had a hell of a lot more to worry about than the mess. There was something in this house I’d never encountered. Something I couldn’t identify. If it was a Shade, it wasn’t any kind that I was familiar with. If the Changs weren’t scared before, then they should be now. Mrs. Chang’s gaze dropped to the floor as if she’d suddenly found the black and white checkered pattern

fascinating.
“You’ve seen her, haven’t you?” I tried, unsuccessfully, 
to leash my temper.
Mr. Chang glanced at his wife. “Kristy, what is she 
talking about? Who did you see?”
His expression said it all. He didn’t know. Had Huli Jing 
avoided him or did she just appear to people who were sensitive? Either way, it should give the Changs plenty to argue about later.

Mrs. Chang slowly looked at her husband, then broughther gaze to mine. “I wasn’t sure what I’d seen.” She sighed. “I thought if I told you everything that you wouldn’t come.”

My eyes narrowed. “You almost got me killed. I thought she was your daughter. She was crying for her mommy up until the point she put me through your bedroom door.”

She blanched. “I’m sorry.” Mrs. Chang buried her face in her husband’s jacket and began to weep silently.

“Sorry? Is that all you can say? You knew she was dangerous and you still let me come in here unprepared.”

Mrs. Chang’s head jerked up, her expression pained. “Ihad no idea that she was dangerous. You must believe me. Iwould never intentionally endanger anyone.”

I flicked the ends of my shredded jacket with my finger.“Right now I’m a little short on trust.”

“Is someone going to tell me what is going on?” Hysteria filled Mr. Chang’s voice, when he looked at me.

Shrugging, I stared at Mrs. Chang. “I don’t know. Maybe you should ask your wife.” I knew I was being a bitch, but pain makes me cranky. I’d essentially walked into an ambush because I’d been so eager to feel the rush that accompanied a Shade’s demise, but her lies hadn’t helped.

Mr. Chang transferred the dog to his other hand so hecould stroke his wife’s hair. “Since you’re the professional, Ms. Dawn, I’m asking you.”
I let his attitude slide. I wasn’t in the mood for another 
fight. “I wish I had an answer for you, but I don’t. I’ve neverseen anything like her in all my years of ghost hunting. Letme guess,” and I nodded at the dog squirming in Mr. Chang’s arms, “that is Fei Yen.”

He nodded. “Yes, why?”

“No reason,” I muttered, galled by the fact I’d gotten my ass kicked because I’d mistaken a child for a dog. “I’ll beright back. Don’t go anywhere. I have more questions for you.” I didn’t think they’d leave, but you could never tell.

Contrary to most classic horror movies where the family refuses to leave or everyone splits up to investigate the strange noise coming from inside the walls or in the basement, people didn’t like to go back into a house once they learned that it was haunted. At least not until it had been cleared.

I stared at the broken doorway that led to the bedroom. Ididn’t want to go back inside. Only a fool would be stupid enough to try, but I’d left my boom box and equipment when I’d made my grand exit.

Unlike the first time I’d walked into the bedroom, this time I approached with caution. The temperature appeared to be back to normal. A good sign. Too bad it didn’t mean anything. Whatever had played “toss the ghost hunter” earlier with me had simply taken a breather. It wasn’t about to leave for good with a juicy grid spewing energy like a geyser.

The Changs stood in the entryway, clutching each other with Fei Yen tucked safely between them. They were anxious for me to tell them everything was going to be all right.

I could have, but that would have been a lie. So I didn’tsay anything. I stepped over the remains of the splintered red door, into the bedroom. Wood fragments on the carpet cracked like dried bones under my feet.

The bedroom looked like someone had dumped it into a blender and hit pulse. Plucked feather pillows left behind a blanket of white down. Shattered light bulbs littered the floor, along with the corpses of a half dozen decimated books.

Fear closed my throat and clogged my nostrils. My gaze swung to the bathroom door. Despite the cracks in the glass, it was still on its hinges and shut. Closed off from the chaos lying at its feet. I wasn’t sure I was ready to face the tiny terror again, if she happened to be waiting in there. But whatchoice did I have? I couldn’t leave the Changs defenseless. It didn’t matter that they’d done it to me. My pulse galloped.

They feed on fear. Pull yourself together.

It took effort, but I forced my feet to take me to the bathroom. The grit on my face mixed with dried blood felt like sandpaper when I rubbed my eyes. My hands shook as I turned the brass handle and I jumped back. The door creaked open a couple of inches. Nothing leapt out but my heart.

With one finger extended, I pushed the door open. It creaked louder. The sound could’ve come from any one of a thousand scary movies. Didn’t something always appear or grab someone after that sound? A creaky door was never a good omen.

I wasn’t helping myself deal with the fear, much less control it. Logically, I knew that, but I was still shaky, and not entirely recovered from the encounter with Huli Jing.

The door swung wide. I’d thought the bedroom looked bad. The word destruction didn’t begin to describe the appearance of the bathroom. The contents of Mrs. Chang’s broken perfume and makeup bottles dripped off the basin and onto the cracked viridian mosaic tiles, forming putrid puddles that made my eyes water. I sneezed, catching my distorted reflection in a spider web of shattered glass.

Between my short spiked blond hair, smeared eyeliner, the blood, and my pale skin, I looked like I wore a death mask. Not a good look for a twenty year old. My gaze moved over the broken mirrors. I guess the Shade didn’t likewhat it saw. That made two of us. Even though I still couldn’t be sure of what I’d seen.

Could a grid make a Shade strong enough to solidify? That little fact had certainly not cropped up in the ghost-hunting articles that I’d read. I made a mental note to do more research.

My boots crunched on mirror shards as I picked my way around the room. I stepped over the mangled copper pipes that had been pulled out of the walls, then checked in the shower and under the sinks. The gold-plated faucets were melted and twisted into odd shapes that resembled ancient symbols. Runes, perhaps? Text? If so, I didn’t recognize the language.

I fumbled for the cell-phone in my pocket and took a picture. If I couldn’t find the symbols on the Internet, I knew someone who might be able to help. I made one more sweep of the area, paying particular attention to the closets on my way out.

As kids, we feared the monsters in our closets and under our beds. We made our parents check for them every night, until we got old enough to realize they weren’t real. If only that were true.

I looked one final time. No Huli, just a helluva mess. It would take a complete remodel to get the bathroom back into working order. But that wasn’t my problem.

My problem was trying to figure out a way to destroy this super Shade or whatever she was. The grid gave Huli Jing ahuge advantage over my equipment. Maybe that’s why she was able to appear solid and feel real to the touch. It might also explain why she was so cold.

The divas and the EMP should’ve been able to drive anyentity out of the house. Yet, beyond a few scratches, Huli hadn’t seemed affected and neither had her power. I’d have to design something special just for her. My brain went to work on the problem while I walked back into the bedroom to gather my equipment.

My euphoria over leaving the bathroom in one piece was short-lived as my gaze fell upon what had been my boom box. Two silver eyes stared out from a macabre puddle of wires and black melted plastic. The components, which I’d fortified against the EMP shockwave, were wedged sideways like a broken steel nose.

The Shade had toasted the divas like marshmallows, along with my stereo, but hadn’t bothered to melt my tackle-box. I suppose I should have been grateful that she’d only dented the crap out of it.

I wasn’t.

Not only had the Shade ruined my favorite jacket, but it had destroyed my equipment and beat up my grandpa’s old tackle-box. My hands curled into fists. Nobody touched the divas and lived. This bitch was going down.

Hard.

The Changs stood right where I’d left them, by the open door. They looked at me with wary eyes when I stopped in front of them. Most ghost hunters would walk out on a job after being lied to. Me included. If I hadn’t wanted a piece of Huli Jing so bad, I’d have left them to clear their house on their own. But she’d made the fight personal when she destroyed my equipment and threw me out of the bedroom.

“I’m really sorry,” Mrs. Chang reiterated.

“Save it.” I put my tackle box down. “When you phoned earlier you said that this haunt started a few days ago. Is that true or was that a lie, too?”

Mr. Chang nodded. “That’s true.”
Mrs. Chang shook her head.
“Kristy?” Mr. Chang looked at his wife in disbelief.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I couldn’t.” She turned away, suddenly unable to face

him.

They could have the argument over trust later. I needed answers now. “When did it start?”

Her chocolate eyes glittered and her shoulders slumped.“I noticed misplaced items a couple of weeks ago, but dismissed them. I thought I’d moved them and forgotten or perhaps the maids had done it.”

Most people dismiss the little things. That was the problem. By the time things got to the point you couldn’t ignore, it was too late. I’d ignored objects moving, strange sounds, and my parents’ wishes. They were dead because of  it. Because of me. I looked at Kristy Chang. Were we really so different?

“You told me that the only things happening were shadow men, furniture rearranging, and items floating through the air.”

“That’s true, well, except for the shadow men. I thought I’d witnessed a shadow moving across the ceiling one day, but I’m pretty sure it was car lights,” said Mrs. Chang.

“What about the apparition? When did you first see her?”I asked.

She glanced at her husband, then back at me. “You have to understand something. I thought that I was going crazy the first time I saw her. I was so desperate for an explanation that I went for a CAT scan. After that came back normal, I didn’t know what to do.”

Mr. Chang pulled his wife close. “Is that why you went to the doctor? You should’ve told me, Kristy. I could’ve helped. I would have protected you.”

Brave, but so naïve.

Her eyes filled with fresh tears. “I didn’t want to worry you—and I was frightened. I’d never seen anything like her. So innocent. So perfect. So unnatural.”

She got that last part right. There was nothing natural about the creature I’d encountered. “Mrs. Chang, please focus. This is important. When did you first see her?”

“You keep saying her.” Mr. Chang frowned. “How do you know this thing was female?”
“Because she dressed like a little girl and she told me her 
name was Huli Jing,” I said.
Their eyes widened and the color drained from their 
faces. Mrs. Chang pressed her hand to her chest and backed away shaking her head in denial. “There must be some mistake.” Her voice cracked and her whole body began to tremble.

“No mistake,” I said. “Do you know her?”

“No,” Mr. Chang said forcefully before Mrs. Chang could answer. He turned to his wife and began speaking Chinese. Words flew out of his mouth in rapid fire. She responded, then looked around, more frightened than before.

“What did you just say? If you have more information, I need to know. It’s the only way I’ll be able to get rid of it.” I wished that I’d been able to follow the conversation, but my high school Spanish was of little help. Whatever they were saying was important. Important enough to switch to their native tongue. There was no doubt they were hiding something.

“We don’t know anything,” he said, looking at his wife.“Tell her, Kristy.”

Mrs. Chang stared at him and frowned. “I saw her two weeks ago, but that’s all I know. Now if you aren’t going to be able to help us, we have to go.” She tugged her husband’scoat sleeve.

I growled in frustration, but they were no longer listening. Whatever they were hiding had them scared. More scared than they had been when I’d arrived and found them on their front lawn shivering in seventy-five-degree weather. I wasn’t going to get any more out of them.

I left the Changs with the promise that I’d return the next day and suggested that they stay with family or check into a hotel until the job was done. It didn’t take much to convince them. Normally I had to put the fear of God into people, but they hadn’t even argued.

Instead, they raced into their room and packed. They were out the door and in their car before I’d had a chance to finish stowing my stuff in my truck. They dropped the key to the front door in my hand and told me to phone them when I was finished. I pocketed the card with their cell number and left.

I needed more answers in short order and unfortunately there was only one place to get them—the Paranormal Friends Society. The only thing worse than working with the dead was dealing with the living.

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